Thursday, July 17, 2008

Flow & Improv Comedy

"Csikszentmihalyi's [pronounced "Cheeks sent me high"] big discovery is that there is a state many people value even more than chocolate after sex. It is the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities. It is what people sometimes call "being in the zone." Csikszentmihalyi called it "flow" because it often feels like effortless movement: Flow happens, and you go with it. Flow often occurs during physical movement--skiing, driving fast on a curvy country road, or playing team sports. Flow is aided by music or by the action of other people, both of which provide a temporal structure for one's own behavior (for example, singing in a choir, dancing, or just having an intense conversation with a friend). And flow can happen during solitary creative activities, such as painting, writing, or photography. The keys to flow: There's a clear challenge that fully engages your attention; you have the skills to meet the challenge; and you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step (the progress principle). You get flash after flash of positive feeling with each turn negotiated, each high note correctly sung, or each brushstroke that falls into the right place. In the flow experience, elephant and rider are in perfect harmony. The elephant (automatic processes) is doing most of the work, running smoothly through the forest, while the rider (conscious thought) is completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities, helping wherever he can."

The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt, pg 95-96

I was trying to figure out a common characteristic that great improvisational comedians have and I came up with the term 'angelic precision'. In my opinion great improvisers' choices appear angelic in that they are pure -- honest, not contrived, conceived spontaneously, in the moment. Their choices are also precise -- they have honed a craft and are able to consistently present something purposeful. It's the harmony between elephant and rider. If the rider tries too hard, choices seem contrived. If the rider is unaware of the implications of his choices then his performance will lack purpose and seem sloppy. When an improviser can make a pointed yet natural choice, it reveals our robotic nature; our elephant. And we have a neat mechanism for dealing with that revelation: laughter.

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